Don’t try this at home: A look back at 2011

forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.    The Aeneid, Book 1

Last year I undertook an ambitious program of marathon swims:

  • in April, the 24-mile Tampa Bay Marathon Swim;
  • in June, the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim;
  • in August, a 20.1-mile solo crossing of the Catalina Channel;
  • in October, the 17.5-mile Ederle Swim from Sandy Hook, New Jersey to Manhattan.

While I usually keep my personal life out of this space, in this case it’s essential to understanding my experiences this year. I undertook this schedule of swims while going through a divorce (a process that began 4 days before MIMS), and while moving 2,100 miles from Chicago to California.

Yep – it was an interesting year.

Continue reading “Don’t try this at home: A look back at 2011”

The “Freshies” – My 10 favorite open-water happenings of 2011

End-of-year list-making: It’s not just for music aficionados, film buffs, and the New York Times Book Review. Why not open water swimmers, too?

So, here are my 10 favorite open-water “happenings” of 2011 (“happenings” because they’re not all swims).

The list is, admittedly, U.S.-centric – America is where I live and what I pay the closest attention to. While I greatly admire (for example) Nejib Belhedi’s 1400K Swim Across Tunisia, I have no unique insights to add to what others have already said. Perhaps Donal or somebody can make an international list.

The list also reflects my own personal biases. I readily admit, I couldn’t care less about “stunts” in which the promotional efforts are more impressive than the swim itself. Sorry, but I find such things distasteful and think they degrade our sport.

With that in mind, here are the winners of the inaugural “freshies” (in no particular order):

Rob Dumouchel: New Year’s Day Polar Bear 10K.

6 miles through sharky 53F (11.6C) ocean, from Avila Beach to Pismo Beach, CA. Quite possibly, the northern hemisphere’s first marathon swim of 2011. Long live the adventure beard!

David Barra & Rondi Davies: 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim.

A 120-mile expedition stage swim from Catskill, NY to the Big Apple. Earned a feature in the New York Times while still seeming under-promoted. A surprising omission from the WOWSA nominations.

Jen Schumacher: Mt. Whitney & Lake Tahoe Back-to-Back.

Day 1: Climb Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental U.S. (14,505ft / 4,421m). Day 2: Swim across Lake Tahoe length-wise (21 miles at 6,225 ft elevation). A lung-busting feat of cross-training. A tacit acknowledgment of the spiritual bond between mountaineers and open-water swimmers.

Forrest Nelson: Catalina Circumnavigation.

Forrest doesn’t call the L.A. Times. He doesn’t hire a camera crew to film a made-for-TV special. Forrest lets his swimming do the talking. The most impressive marathon swim of 2011 by someone not named Penny Palfrey.

  1. Roger Allsopp: English Channel at age 65.
  2. Pat Gallant-Charette: Catalina Channel at age 60.
  3. Elizabeth Fry: Double crossing of the English Channel at age 52.

Three heroic swims, three new age records.

NYC Swim: A re-written record book. The first double-Ederle swim, by Elizabeth Fry (and along the way, new one-way records in each direction).
Then, re-broken one-way Ederle records, by Lance Ogren and myself.
Best of all: Rondi Davies’ and Ollie Wilkinson’s incredible MIMS match race, with both swimmers breaking Shelley Taylor-Smith’s legendary 16-year old round-Manhattan record.
Morty Berger isn’t someone who seeks out attention, but I’ll just go ahead and say: He deserves a lot of the credit for these record-breaking swims.

Penny Palfrey: Cayman Islands Swim. If this wasn’t the greatest feat of endurance swimming in history, it’s second only to the English Channel triple-crossings (Jon Erikson, Alison Streeter, & Philip Rush).

Petar Stoychev. Not a terribly original choice, but you can’t under-sing this guy’s praises. Petar is, it would seem, immune to water temperature. He already holds the fastest English Channel crossing (6 hr, 57 min). This year, he won the FINA 25K world championship in 32C (90F) water. He has won the FINA Grand Prix circuit 10 years in a row, and is still going strong at age 34. At some point soon, he will probably be acknowledged as the greatest open water swimmer…ever.

USA Swimming 10K Open-Water National Championships. Rough-water swimming at its finest – and the most exciting open-water race I’ve ever seen. For 9,800m, Andrew Gemmell, Sean Ryan, Arthur Frayler, and Mark Warkentin battled it out in insanely choppy conditions. Swimmers were colliding with each other from opposite directions on a rectangular course. Alex Meyer slipped in for the win, to qualify for World Championships (and eventually, London). Here’s a video.

State of California: Shark fin ban. Because shark-finning is barbaric and shameful. Sometimes, government can make a difference.

For what it’s worth, I endorse the following nominees for the WOWSA awards:

  • Man of the Year: Simon Griffiths (publisher of the new H20pen Magazine)
  • Woman of the Year: Penny Palfrey
    • Note: Penny is listed in both this category and the “performance of the year” category. As I predicted, she is splitting her own vote.
  • Performance of the Year: Forrest Nelson
    • Need another reason to vote for Forrest? I haven’t gotten a single email or Facebook post from him, begging for my vote.

Swimming with the Ocean Ducks at Goleta Beach

The blog has been rather text-heavy lately. This post should fix that.

The Santa Barbara Ocean Ducks gather Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at Goleta Beach County Park, and Sundays at Butterfly Beach in Montecito (plus Saturdays in the summer). It’s a diverse, friendly group of folks, and even this late in the year you can expect to see 8-10 of us in the water during the week; more on the weekends.

Goleta Beach

Typically we head out in groups of 2 or 3 according to speed. There are a variety of possible swim routes. Here’s one of my favorites (click to enlarge):

Goleta Beach to Campus Point

From our meeting place next to the shower head (west of the restaurant and pier, east of the restroom), we make our way beyond the surf line, 100-150m offshore. Then we turn right, towards UC Santa Barbara and Campus Point. On the outbound trip, we try to maintain a constant distance from shore as we bend around the cove. In the image above I’ve noted four intermediate landmarks, which offer convenient turning-back points if someone is in a hurry.

End of the Beach

The Rock

The Waterfall

The Stairs

The full trip to the east side of Campus Point is approximately 1800m. As seen on the satellite image, this location is actually a “false” point, beyond which there is a small cove that bends into the “true” Point. Usually the false point (or even a little before) offers a better turn-around spot, to avoid rocks and surfers – especially on big W or SW swells. Even on flat-ish days there’s often a nice little right-breaking wave at the Point – perfect for a bodysurfing interlude.

On the return trip we aim for a straight-line trip across the cove. If done correctly, this shaves 300m off the outbound distance. The north side of the pier (where it intersects with the beach) is the best sighting landmark. I usually make the 3300m (2-mile) round-trip in a little under an hour, including a bodysurfing break.

Here’s a short video I took near “the rock”:

It’s a beautiful little swim. There’s an occasional kelp patch to dodge, and perhaps a lone seal or pod of dolphins out for lunch; but for the most part, not much in the way of sea-flora or fauna.

A couple gratuitous Google Earth views of the swim:

From the West

From the East

Interesting historical note: this swim route partially retraces a favorite workout of Lynne Cox, a 1979 graduate of UC Santa Barbara. According to her memoir Swimming to Antarctica, Lynne would swim from the Goleta pier to Campus Point, then on to the next point (Coal Oil Point), and back – a 6.5-mile round trip.

Lynne Cox's route

I guess I need to find a paddler!

Venus, Mars, and Catalina

Previously, we’ve looked at some general stats on Catalina Channel finishing times, and the growth in participation since George Young’s pioneering swim in 1927. What about gender differences? (Taking a page from Katie’s playbook…)

From 1927-2004, there were 90 successful swims by men and 44 successful swims by women (a ratio of 2.05 to 1). From 2005-2011, there were 80 successful swims by men and 49 successful swims by women (a ratio of 1.63 to 1). So, the gap is narrowing…a bit.

Here, again, it would interesting to see the data on failed swims. Is the ratio of men to women the same for failed swims as for successful swims?

Side note: I decided to split the data-set at 2005 because it offered similarly-sized groupings, and because this was the year when there was a surge in popularity of Catalina Channel swimming (possibly due to the advent of the “triple crown”).

And here are the average & median finish times for each group (C-M one-way crossings only):

Average Median
Men 1927-2004 13:14 12:14
Women 1927-2004 12:17 11:03
Men 2005-2011 11:23 10:51
Women 2005-2011 11:00 10:39

In both eras, women are faster – despite lower levels of participation. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, given that women have the overall records in both directions – Karen Burton from Catalina (7:43) and Penny Lee Dean from the mainland (7:15). Interestingly, in my analysis of MIMS times I also found women were almost uniformly faster.

This raises an obvious question without an obvious answer: Why? (See the comments section for a couple theories.)

The third in a series of posts taking a statistical look at the history of Catalina Channel swimming (see parts 1 and 2). These analyses have not been validated or endorsed by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation and should be considered “unofficial.” 2011 swims are included, but are unofficial until the ratification banquet on November 5.

CCSF’s official list of successful swims is available here. Penny Lee Dean’s authoritative history is here.

Swim efficiency and energy consumption

In the last post I bemoaned the lack of credible science about marathon swimming. One is reminded of the William Goldman quote about the movie industry: Nobody knows anything.

Here’s a good example. A few days ago a Facebook friend linked to an intriguing-looking article. Published on a science-y looking website (“Your one-stop resource for longevity, health, exercise, nutrition, and scientific articles all to help you live a longer, fuller life”), the article is authored by marathon swimmer Don Macdonald.

One section seemed of particular interest: “Nutritional Demands of Open Water Endurance Swimming.” An excerpt:

Nutritional endurance demands biochemical changes of your body. The basic calculation for the amount of calories burned while swimming is 2.93 calories per mile, per pound. I weigh 207 pounds, and therefore burn 14,556 calories in a 24-mile swim, (2.93 calories x 24 miles x 207 pounds = 14,556 calories). You must also add 10-15 percent of your burnt calorie total for the energy it takes your body to keep itself warm. In this case, adding another 1,500 calories.

2.93 calories per mile, per pound. Really? How do you figure?

Does it seem likely that calorie burn depends only on distance, and not the time taken to complete the distance? If I swim 10 miles in 4 hours, does a slower swimmer who takes 7 hours burn the same calories as me, despite spending 3 more hours in the water (assuming equal body weight)? Do I burn the same calories in a 1500m warm-up as during a 1500m race?

Actually, there is a school of thought (with some scientific basis) that calorie burn is independent of speed/time in “animal locomotion” generally. As Wikipedia (referencing a 1973 Science paper) explains:

The most common metric of energy use during locomotion is net cost of transport, defined as the calories needed above baseline metabolism to move a given distance, per unit body mass. For aerobic locomotion, most animals have a nearly constant cost of transport – moving a given distance requires the same caloric expenditure, regardless of speed. This constancy is usually accomplished by changes in gait.

The idea is, calories are a measure of work – the work required to move a given body mass a given distance. Hence the common rule-of-thumb in running: 1 calorie (technically, kilocalorie) per kilometer, per kilogram. Running at higher speeds burns more calories, but this is counterbalanced by the reduced time taken to complete the distance. More recent evidence has complicated this view – showing differences in calorie burn between walking and running a given distance. For what it’s worth, though, many runners seem to think the rule-of-thumb comes pretty close.

But what about swimming? Is the “net cost of transport” constant, regardless of speed? Does 2.93 calories per mile, per pound make any sense, even as a rule-of-thumb? I’m inclined to say… no. The reason: Efficiency. Humans are very efficient walkers and runners – it’s what we’re evolved to do. An elite runner converts 90% of energy expended into forward motion – but even a recreational runner is about 80% efficient. (I assume Terry Laughlin got these numbers from science, but I’m not going to hunt for it.)

An elite swimmer, however, is only about 9% efficient. And a novice swimmer is astoundingly inefficient – T.L. estimates 3%. Humans are pretty terrible swimmers, all considered.

It makes sense that the “net cost of transport” would be fairly constant on land – because humans efficiently convert additional effort into additional speed. In the water, however, most of our efforts are wasted. Water is both dense (compared to air) and unstable (compared to the ground). Even large increases in effort produce relatively small changes in speed. It would seem to follow, then, that the “net cost of transport” in swimming depends very much on speed! Moreover, skilled swimmers are much more efficient than unskilled swimmers – compared to the relatively small differences among runners. Sun Yang’s net cost of transport is less than mine, and my net cost of transport is far less than the average triathlete.

What else is wrong with 2.93 calories per mile, per pound? Let’s plug in some numbers. In the above quote from Don Macdonald, he uses a 24-mile swim as an example. That happens to be the same distance as the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim. Earlier this year I completed this swim in 8 hours, 59 minutes. Flavia Zappa, the last swimmer to finish, came in at 15 hours, 10 minutes (results link). Assume for the moment that we weigh the same.

If calorie burn is only a function of distance, that means Flavia and I each burned 11,251 calories (2.93 * 24 miles * 160 pounds). In Flavia’s case, that produces a not-unreasonable-sounding (but still high) rate of 742 calories per hour. But for me, 11,251 calories equates to 1,252 calories per hour. Not likely.

Isn’t it obvious that an efficient swimmer will burn fewer calories per mile than an inefficient swimmer? To believe a rule-of-thumb like 2.93 calories per mile, per pound, you essentially have to believe that there is no such thing as efficiency in swimming. Anybody who knows anything about swimming, of course, knows that swim speed is mostly about efficiency.

UPDATE 10/31: Karen raises a great point: Energy expenditure during a marathon swim will also depend on conditions (not just water temperature, as Don Macdonald mentions). Swimming through big swells, chop, and whitecaps will burn more calories than swimming across a glassy lake.

The second in a three-part series. See Part 1 and Part 3.

A marathon swim checklist

In my experience, the day before a marathon swim is almost invariably a hassle. Just when you most need to be resting, you find yourself running around an unfamiliar town in search of various items you forgot to pack. From Tampa in April, to MIMS in June, to Catalina last month, I’ve gradually streamlined the process – but there always seem to be last-minute tasks. And even the most experienced marathon swimmers will tell you it’s almost impossible to pull it all together without the help of a friend or significant other.

Most people resort to writing a checklist at some point. The list will vary slightly between swims – and swimmers – but there are common themes. My list reflects hard-earned experience over three 20+ mile swims in a single season. For those tackling their first marathon swim, this might speed the learning curve a bit.

A note on formatting: Italicized items I consider “optional.” [Bracketed] items are products that I personally use.



  • high-calorie liquid feed [Maxim + apple juice or Perpetuem]
  • feed bottles
    • characteristics of good feed bottles: built-in loop (for securing to kayak), medium-sized spout (not too small, not too large), easy-flip top
  • thermos of hot water for warm feeds (unless boat has microwave)
  • bottled water
  • funnel (for pouring drink powder)
  • measuring cup (for mixing feeds)
  • solid food / snacks (very personal, but might include bananas, gel packs, watery oatmeal, Chicken McNuggets, etc.)

Discomfort Maintenance

  • lube [channel grease = 50% lanolin, 50% vaseline]
  • latex gloves (to apply lube)
  • mouthwash (for saltwater swims)
  • sunscreen [preferably long-duration waterproof, such as SolRX]
  • anti-inflammatories (e.g., ibuprofen)
  • anti-motion sickness (e.g., bonineginger products, scopolamine patch)
  • warm clothes (e.g., parka, wool socks, sleeping bag)
  • earplugs

Misc. Gear

  • rope & carabiners (for securing feed bottles)
  • zip ties
  • glow sticks (if swimming at night)
  • safety pins (for attaching glow sticks)
  • stopwatch
  • log sheets
  • dry-erase board + markers

Media & Communication

  • GPS tracker + batteries [SPOT Tracker, or if continuous cellular signal available, Instamapper smart-phone app]
  • mobile phone + charger (preferably smart phone w/ Twitter & Facebook apps installed)
  • camera or video-camera [Kodak PlaySport]
  • walkie-talkie + extra batteries (for communication between boat & kayak)

Finally, there’s the issue of whether and how to compensate “volunteer” crew and paddlers. It’s sort of an awkward topic, but one you should give some thought to before you arrive in town for the swim. Here’s my policy, for what it’s worth:

  • For non-family crew members, I take care of expenses incurred “on the ground” – i.e., everything but air travel.
  • For volunteer paddlers, I offer a cash tip over & above the expenses. For compensated paddlers, I offer a small gift (e.g., bottle of wine).

Reimbursing transportation expenses is a nice thing to do (gas prices being as they are), but just remember that regardless of reimbursement, your crew are still doing you a huge favor. Especially for an overnight swim like Catalina. The best way to return this favor is to return it in kind. For crew members who are also swimmers, offer to crew for them on a future swim.

A final word on wetsuits (in marathon swimming)

A few more volleys in the debate, from:

First, thanks to Scott for the generous mention of my post from a few days ago.

In Dave’s response, he emphasizes maintaining a clear distinction between channel-rules swims and performance-enhanced (i.e., wetsuited) swims, but stops short of agreeing with Scott that wetsuited swimming “isn’t swimming.” An important question remains:

If wetsuited swimming is “swimming,” what specifically distinguishes it from channel-rules swimming, and how does this affect how we judge achievements in each category?

Continue reading “A final word on wetsuits (in marathon swimming)”